Meet Columbia Business School’s MBA Class Of 2021

Lonnie Wishom

Columbia Business School

“Christian, husband, and recovering politico. I’m comfortable in discomfort, challenging orthodoxy, and laughing at myself.”

Hometown: Antioch, CA

Fun Fact About Yourself: After Muhammad Ali’s death, I wrote the resolution that Congress passed to honor his life and legacy.

Undergraduate School and Major: Weber State University/Political Science

Most Recent Employer and Job Title: Tata Consultancy Services/Manager of Government and Community Partnerships

Describe your biggest accomplishment in your career so far: In my role managing government partnerships, I was able to facilitate a partnership between a city and our company’s corporate social responsibility (CSR) team, to bring our digital literacy and design thinking program directly to students whose families live in government-subsidized housing units of the city. Our CSR team normally worked directly with schools or non-profit groups that already have certain infrastructure and processes in place. This was a unique proposal because we would be helping develop an entire program from its inception, so there was some initial concern about our capacity to undertake such an ambitious project. I worked with the mayor’s office to showcase the importance of the program being hosted directly in this particular community, as opposed to a school or local non-profit headquarters, and shared this feedback with the company.

When I shared information about the barriers these parents identified (unpredictable/inflexible work schedules, unreliable transportation, younger siblings who needed to be babysat, etc.) that would make it difficult for their children to attend the program if it were hosted in another location, company executives decided to proceed with our participation. The program was a positive experience for everyone involved. It was so successful that it garnered the most media coverage of any of our community-focused work, resulted in conversations with the Governor’s office about implementing the model statewide and, most importantly, established a positive partnership that continues to be beneficial to students. Promoting technology awareness in an overlooked community and advocating for residents in that community to executives of a multi-billion dollar company was incredibly rewarding, and is an example of the type of impact I hope to have on every organization with which I’m affiliated.

What quality best describes the MBA classmates you’ve met so far and why? I’d say spontaneous. I’m used to people being more hesitant to engage in spur-of-the-moment activities. Usually, I’m trying to convince people to join me in doing a last-second brunch, concert, hike, etc. My CBS classmates are giving me a run for my money as far as being open to doing things without knowing every detail. It’s pleasantly surprising because I was expecting people to be much more measured in their approaches to meeting people and doing things, so it’s great that people are so willing to go with the flow.

What is the best part of coming to New York City to earn your MBA? I love Harlem and what it represents. The Great Migration (which was the mass movement of formerly enslaved people from the Jim Crow South to the North and to the western US) really represents one of the first times in American history when formerly enslaved people were able to exercise some level of autonomy as far as where they would live. We always say America is a nation of immigrants, but my ancestors didn’t immigrate here. They were brought here, so the generation of people who uprooted their lives in the South in hopes of better lives in other parts of the US was the closest thing to immigrating for my ancestors. Harlem, in many ways, was the epicenter of that movement. That new-found spirit of freedom led to a revolution of black music, art, writing, business, and culture that became known as the Harlem Renaissance and is my favorite part of American history. I think that innovative energy still shapes Harlem, and I’m looking forward to being fully immersed in it over the next couple of years.

Aside from your classmates and location, what was the key factor that led you to choose this program for your full-time MBA and why was it so important to you? The Chazen Institute for Global Business stood out for its leadership in exploring globalization and how automation is changing the global workforce. My work in the US Senate on labor and workforce policy helped me understand the challenges associated with technology-based worker displacement and the need for government and the business world to work together for a massive investment in workforce upskilling and retraining.

Rapid adoption of technological advances has many positive outcomes, but one of the challenges of automation has been imbalanced economic growth. This economic imbalance has contributed to a global political discourse characterized by those benefiting from change, those afraid of change, and those who gain power by manipulating this fear of change into xenophobia. I believe business leaders must play a vital role in helping foster more balanced economic growth and fostering opportunities that reach people regardless of geographic location through investing in their employees’ development, considering how decisions to adopt new technologies will affect their existing workforce, and identifying strategies to help their employees share in this growth. I know that these sorts of large challenges are typically considered the work of government, but my Hill experience has shown me how much more effective these changes can be when the private sector is on board. The resources, professors, and thought leadership coming out the Chazen Institute provide valuable opportunities for business leaders interested in building a future of work that doesn’t leave people, especially economically vulnerable communities, behind.

What club or activity are you looking most forward to in business school? I’m excited about getting involved with the Re-Entry Acceleration Program (REAP), which trains MBA students to deliver business training to incarcerated individuals, develops tools for potential employers, and creates forums for new relationships to shape a solutions-focused dialogue around post-incarceration employment.

I have a number of family members who have been incarcerated at different points. As a kid, I developed an interest in exploring the circumstances that led to their initial incarceration as well as considering ways to help people re-integrate into society. To see an MBA program dedicate significant resources to this type of program was proof that my principles were aligned with those of the institution.

What was the most challenging question you were asked during the admissions process? The most difficult question I was asked was “Why did you leave the job in the US Senate?” It was difficult to answer this question because I didn’t want to get into any conversations that could be polarizing and the core reason I left my job was because my views no longer aligned with those of my employer. Trying to discuss a topic that is inherently political in a setting where I was advised to avoid political conversations was a challenge to navigate.

What led you to pursue an MBA at this point in your career? When I was working in the US Senate, I worked on small business policy (among other policy areas) and part of that entailed talking to business executives and entrepreneurs about the federal resources (grants, loans, federal contracting opportunities) for which they might be eligible and how to strategically position themselves to access these resources. I actually enjoyed that component of the job more than the policy work because I was able to clearly see how companies would use this capital to add value for their consumers or invest in the development of their workforce.

Since I enjoyed helping businesses find different ways to access capital and grow, I decided that I wanted to transition into a career where I would be able to advise companies on this process on a more consistent basis. I knew I needed to a better understanding of finance in order to do this work at an elite level, and I knew an MBA (especially at a school like Columbia) would allow me to make that pivot effectively.

What other MBA programs did you apply to? NYU, Haas, Babson, Simon, Harvard

How did you determine your fit at various schools? My factors of importance were the following:

1. I wanted a place that also worked with my wife’s career (M&A law). We were in a long-distance relationship before we got married and we didn’t want to do it again. Additionally, she has worked her entire life to successfully get into this career, and the thought of me asking her to sacrifice her career for my MBA aspirations was untenable. I needed an MBA program in a place conducive to her career goals.

2. It needed to have a diverse and active alumni network. Having an impressive alumni network is great, but if the alumni are unresponsive to current students seeking advice or the school community hasn’t been able to facilitate important relationship-building opportunities between current students and alumni, that school’s network isn’t one I want to join.

3. It should have people who look like me in a variety of important decision-making roles. Michael Robinson, Zelon Crawford, Dr. Phillips, and Dr. Akinola, etc. are not just faces on campus. They lead some of the most important aspects of the Columbia MBA program. Any organization serious about developing leaders who understand the importance of diversity should itself reflect that by their faculty and staff and CBS understands that.

I used the following tools to research programs:

  • Rankings, Poets and Quants articles
  • Management Leadership for Tomorrow classmates, faculty and alumni

I researched culture by speaking with current students and alumni as well as individuals who didn’t go to that school about why they chose not to attend.

I knew CBS fit my career goals because it had a great reputation for finance and I knew that was an area in which I wanted to grow my understanding.

What was your defining moment and how did it shape who you are? I requested a meeting with my boss, a man I had grown to respect and who happened to be one of the most senior members of Congress, to ask that he withdraw his support for a presidential candidate that he had recently endorsed. He greeted me with a warm smile and asked what was on my mind. I knew there was no easy way to initiate the conversation so I bluntly said “Sir, what is happening with this campaign is the antithesis of the principles you represent. I think you should reconsider your endorsement.”

He and I proceeded to speak for over an hour about free-market principles, the enduring legacy of systemic racism in America, how that legacy shapes the present for so many people and the global history of scapegoating ethnic and religious minorities for society’s problems. He said he appreciated my thoughts and, to my surprise, he agreed with many of them. In Congress, where relationships and access are valued commodities – often traded with a smile by Capitol Hill staff in lieu of high compensation – I had been fearful of jeopardizing this relationship. As our meeting concluded and we shook hands, he said: “Regardless of what happens, I want you to know that I care about you and so do others in this office.” I believe to this day that he and others in that office cared about me, and still to this day I think he’s a great man. In that moment, I realized it was not sufficient for powerful people or institutions to care about me; I had to fight to make sure they cared about the communities that molded me.

We enjoy stories in which good and bad are clear and right and wrong are simple. However, very rarely is anyone or anything all good or all bad. For example, decades earlier when funding to combat AIDS was particularly controversial, this very member of Congress went against many in his own party, and even many in his own religion, to fight for funding research to better understand how to treat and reduce the spread of the AIDS epidemic. More recently, this man had been one of eight Republicans to support legislation providing a pathway to citizenship for undocumented immigrants. Both of these decisions resulted in significant criticism by his constituents and alienation by many in his political party – along with jeopardizing his re-election. He knew he’d take heat from the voters back home – but he knew that doing what was right was more important than doing what was politically expedient.  Now this same man whose moral courage I’d grown to respect was making a decision with which, on moral grounds, I strongly disagreed.

While I’m not so naïve as to believe that working for an elected official requires that you agree 100% with where they stand on every issue – my boss’s endorsement of this particular candidate, for me, was a bridge too far. Because of what I considered irreconcilable differences, I eventually submitted my letter of resignation, leaving a promising Hill career, and along with it, many new opportunities that would have surely come my way as a result of the incoming Presidential Administration and my former boss’s early and strong endorsement.

It was a pivotal moment in my life because it helped me understand that I had the strength to do what I believed was right, even though it was hard, and gave me the confidence to know I don’t need to compromise my values for professional advancement. To be sitting here a few weeks from embarking upon my MBA journey at my dream school is an amazing confirmation that I made the right choice.

Where do you see yourself in ten years? In my personal life, I see myself still happily married but with three kids to help raise. Professionally, I see myself advising companies on how to successfully raise the capital they need to move to the next level and add value for consumers; consulting for political campaigns about how to address the root causes of mass incarceration; working with business leaders to implement strategies for a 21st Century economy that fosters more balanced economic growth in the face of unprecedented technological change; and speaking with young professionals to encourage them to have the confidence that things will work out when they uphold their values even if it costs them professional opportunities in the short run.

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